As you hear Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan, which character do you most identify with? Which character does Jesus imagine we are?
As a priest, one of my duties is to give a weekly sermon at the Sunday Divine Liturgy.
This may seem like an easy task – after all, I’ve been to seminary – but it’s often more challenging than one would imagine.
Seminary can’t give you a full explanation for every passage in scripture; indeed, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has over 2,000 pages.
What seminary did give me – as does any graduate program training professionals – are the tools to think critically, the language skills to exegete the verses, and a theological matrix in which to understand the context.
As a result, preparing a sermon often becomes a learning experience for me, allowing the Word of God to speak to me in new and surprising ways.
I had such an experience a few weeks ago.
The passage I was preparing for was the story of the Good Samaritan, which is told in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
This is a story is about a Judean man who gets robbed, beaten, and left for dead alongside a country road. Along comes a Levite and a priest, who, wanting to remain pure for Temple services, pass by without helping.
Finally, along comes a Samaritan, a hated enemy of the Judeans. He stops and saves the man.
At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “Who was neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
As I thought about this passage, it occurred to me to ask myself the question, “Who do I think I am in the story?”
In all honesty, I’d like to think that I’m the good Samaritan. A hero who stops to help someone in need, even if that stranger turns out to be the person I most hate.
Even if I realize that I often fall short of the ideal, I still hope to be, and strive to be, that good neighbor.
However, as I thought about all this, it occurred to me: this wasn’t the answer to my question, “Who am I in the story?”
If the story is told in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and that answer turns out to be the Samaritan, then I have to be the one whom the Samaritan has helped.
I’m the Beaten Man!
It would seem that Jesus tells the story envisioning that we are the man beaten alongside the road. We are the one who has need of a neighbor.
That took me back. I had to process that for a minute.
I had a seminary professor who always said, “If you’re paying attention while you read the Bible, it’s a very humbling experience.”
I always liked to think of myself as an independent, successful person with a “can-do” attitude, but this parable turns the tables on me.
The reality is that I’m not as in control as I thought I was. I can’t do it all on my own.
In fact, if I’m honest with myself, the parable is right: life often leaves people beaten alongside the road.
It’s not about self-determination in overcoming life’s obstacles. Rather, it’s about humbly and willingly accepting help – even from an enemy. It’s about community.
The irony of the story is that only when we realize that we’ve been left for dead, and willingly accept help from a Good Samaritan, does Jesus then turn it around and ask us to be that Good Samaritan, helping others lying along the road.
Being a Wounded Healer
In seminary, we called this being a “wounded healer.”
This means that we all come up short in life in some way.
Maybe we’ve come up short financially, living paycheck to paycheck.
Maybe we’ve come up short in health, constantly fighting off disease.
Maybe we’ve come up short in relationships, struggling through divorce or finding ourselves without friends.
Maybe we’ve come up short in luck, and it’s just one problem after the next.
But the point is that in order for us to be a Good Samaritan, we first have to realize our own brokenness, our own fallenness, and our own need for a neighbor.
It’s a humbling experience to do this sort of reflection.
But, in the end, it’s a transformative experience in which I can see Christ at work in my life – working through Good Samaritans, neighbors who stop to help.
This, in turn, is what then gives me the strength to become a Good Samaritan for others.
P.S. Become a Wounded Healer
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(This article was originally published in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Saturday, December 2nd, 2017. Click here to read it there.)